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Pakistan: Newsline

Making strides towards gender equality in the Punjab

©UNICEF Pakistan/Zaidi
An unexpectedly enthusiastic response to the call for girls’ education means that the Shahpur Government Girls Primary School cannot supply desks for all the classes.

On a steamy day at the Shahpur Government Girls’ Primary School Sidra Yasmin rises before her classmates, a group of attentive six-year-olds, and confidently counts to one hundred. “I used to stay at home with my elder sisters to look after my sick father,” says Sidra. “My mother works as a maid so we have to do the housework. Then one day I told my parents that I’d decided to go to school. I want to know how to read and write. They aren’t angry that I’m here. In fact, they’re proud of me.”  

Sidra and her 92 classmates are packed three to a desk, but each has her own set of textbooks. By the time they complete Class 1, they will have acquired the basics of numeracy and literacy, as well as a general grounding in religious studies.  

Next door in the pre-school class, an elfin five-year-old with pale skin and blue eyes is sniffling into a handkerchief. As she stands up, she fumbles for her satchel and bursts into tears. The teacher bends to her ear to deliver some words of reassurance. Stepping back to let the girl pass, the teacher explains, “She’s going home to her mother” as she watches her new charge cross the dirt courtyard and leave the compound. “It’s only her second day and she’s frightened. There’s no point in being strict if we want her to like school.”

Both girls, one reluctant, the other eager, are testimony to the success of the major education reforms introduced in the Punjab, Pakistan’s most densely populated province. With the aim of having every child between the ages of five and nine in school, the Punjab administration has passed legislation to make education compulsory, abolished school fees up to high school level, and sanctioned the provision of free textbooks.

In collaboration with the Punjab Education Department, UNICEF and partners are helping this vision become a reality through the Universal Quality Primary Education Project that was launched in 2003 with funding from the Norwegian Government. The target is to provide a good quality elementary education to every child, with an emphasis on girls’ education, in line with the Millennium Development Goal of achieving universal and equal primary education by 2015.

UNICEF chose six districts where enrolment rates were especially low: Kasur, Mianwali, Rahim Yar Khan, Rajanpur, Sargodha and Sheikhupura. Just over half of the 1.4 million youngsters aged between five and seven living there had never been to school.

Community outreach boosts enrolment

Participation by the community is the driving force behind the enrolment campaign. At the start of the project, local organizations, supported by UNICEF and the Education Department, s howed teachers and community volunteers in 4,800 rural villages how to determine the number of children out of school. Knocking on door after door, they interviewed families in every house with children. Over cups of tea and coffee, they urged parents to send their children to school.

© UNICEF Pakistan/Zaidi
At another school, the Government Girls' Primary School Kotala Rajanapur in Punjab, students read from the free textbooks provided by the government for grades one to eight.

By the end of the first year, more than 304,000 children between the ages of five and seven had filed through the gates of primary schools. The enrolment rate in these communities was 85 per cent, compared with a provincial average of 50 per cent. The following year, 2004, enrolment exceeded the UNICEF target of 90 per cent. This grass-roots approach to enrolment has worked so well that the Pakistan government has replicated it in 16 other districts in the country.

Dropouts remain a challenge

However, full classrooms do not necessarily spell success. In the past, one out of every two children who has been enrolled in school in the Punjab has failed to complete primary education. This 50 per cent drop out rate mirrors the national average, which is amongst the highest in the world.

The statistics demonstrate a gender bias in retention rates that favours boys over girls. In the Punjab, two out of three girls drop out before completing primary school. One reason for this attrition rate is that many in Punjab’s conservative and patriarchal society regard girls who attend school as flouting religious and cultural codes of conduct.

At Shahpur, the Class 1 intake was so large it was divided into two. Yet, if past experience is any guide, most children will drop out in two or three years. By the fourth year, for instance, only 26 students remained in class. One of Shahpur’s teachers says, “Every girl has a right to be educated, but when they reach puberty their brothers and fathers make them drop their studies. They say ‘Now that you are big, stay at home and don’t show yourself out in the street’.”

Education quality improves

The focus on quality education, at the heart of UNICEF’s current country programme, is lready helping to reduce the dropout rate. The organization works through 18 local organizations and the administration’s learning coordinators, to train and monitor 30,000 teachers in child-friendly and gender-sensitive approaches to learning. It has also selected 150 schools for a pilot project to create development activities.

The members of 13,500 school councils already know how to monitor the school attendance of both pupils and teachers, and the enrolment of out-of-school children. UNICEF works closely with the District Education Departments and has trained 180 district education officials in the rights-based approach to education.

The push for universal enrolment is thought to have impacted on an equally important educational requirement - comprehension of what is being taught. A survey conducted among Punjabi primary school graduates revealed that they had retained and understood only one third of the standard curriculum.

Just as telling, only 34 per cent of Punjabi teachers surveyed could pass the primary school competency exams. Nevertheless, parents are motivated to keep their sons and daughters in school and are increasingly seeing that they are in an environment where they are truly learning.

“My girls are the first in the family to go to school,” says Azra Batool, who sits on the Shahpur School Council, “The head teacher’s father-in-law…persuaded my husband to send them. Recently, when he died, my daughter stood up and paid tribute to him as the man who opened up her future…. She’s planning to do a bachelor’s degree in teacher training now.”


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